By Rachel Baldwin
CHARLESTON - A former county commissioner was the first of several Mingo County officials to be sentenced to prison, receiving a 20-month term, after he was indicted on a federal extortion charge and resigned from office.
According to information provided by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, in June 2009, Baisden, 67, of Delbarton, shook down the Appalachian Tire store in Williamson for a deep discount on tires for his personal car, threatening to cut off the store’s county business unless it complied. When Appalachian refused Baisden’s demand, he used his authority as the commission’s purchasing agent to make good on his threat, stripping Appalachian of nearly $60,000 in county business.
Earlier this month, Baisden agreed to pay a total of $7,700 in restitution to Appalachian Tire and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. He is required to make monthly payments over a three-year period until the debt is fulfilled. He had faced up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The defendant resigned from the commission, where he served as the county’s purchasing agent, a week after his guilty plea. This plea and agreement barred Baisden from ever seeking or serving in public office again. He will spend three years on federal supervised release after he serves his 20-month sentence.
Baisden’s attorney, Jim Cagle, had sought probation, noting that his client had no salary, had lost his pension and has prostate cancer, and is scheduled to begin treatment. Cagle presented a petition containing more than 1,000 signatures of individuals who asked that the former commissioner receive probation, along with a number of personal reference letters. The judge still sentenced Baisden to 20 months in prison.
Federal prosecutors were seeking a prison term between two and two-and-a-half years (24-30 months), saying Baisden abused his powers and that stern punishment was the only effective deterrent to public corruption Prosecutors have said the former commissioner’s actions cost Appalachian Tire tens of thousands of dollars.
More recently, Basiden allegedly played a key role in a scheme to obstruct a federal investigation of former Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum.
Early last year, Baisden learned that a Mingo County drug defendant was an informant for the FBI regarding alleged criminal conduct by Crum. Baisden and other county officials orchestrated a scheme to remove the informant’s defense attorney, who was encouraging the FBI cooperation, and replace him with another attorney handpicked by Baisden.
Former Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury and former Mingo County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Sparks have pleaded guilty in connection with that scheme.
“The people of Mingo County and Southern West Virginia are sick and tired of crooked politicians,” said Goodwin. “They deserve honest leaders who will work hard to make West Virginia a better place, not feather their own nests. These prosecutions should send a strong message: Politicians are not above the law, and there are serious consequences for abusing the public’s trust.”
Several Mingo County residents shared their thoughts about the sentence imposed against Baisden, and had this to say:
“It’s really a shame,” said Danny Catrell. “They did the crime and should have got the time … it’s just politics.”
Mary J. Curry came to Baisden’s defense, saying, “It’s a shame … he was the hardest-working commissioner we had. I know he did wrong and should have to pay a fine, but for this to ever have gone as far as it did just doesn’t seem right to me.”
Local attorney Tim Koontz said, “It was a reasonable sentence under the circumstances. He could have received probation. Judge Copenhaver rewards those who plead guilty and punishes those who don’t. For Judge Copenhaver, this was a tough sentence. Much of this is based on the federal sentencing guidelines that take into account criminal history and other factors. If he had prior convictions and more money was involved, it could have been longer.”
Donna Smith said, “This is exactly why these crimes will not ever decline … a simple slap on the wrist will not do it.”
Calls to Baisden went unanswered. Neither were they returned after a message was left at his residence requesting comment.
The FBI and the West Virginia State Police are continuing to investigate allegations of corruption in Mingo County. Counsel to the United States Attorney, Steven Ruby, and Assistant United States Attorney Haley Bunn are in charge of the prosecutions.